Federal election 2016: Leadership turmoil looms if Liberals lose the election

14 June 2016

Given the tensions already existing in the party since the dumping of Tony Abbott last September, it is reasonable to assume that a defeat will serve only to exacerbate them, which would probably mean that Malcolm Turnbull would not remain as leader.

In the unlikely - but by no means improbable - event of a Labor victory on July 2, the Liberals, after their customary finger-pointing and blood-letting, will have a problem to address. What will they do for a leader?

Given the tensions already existing in the party since the dumping of Tony Abbott last September, it is reasonable to assume that a defeat will serve only to exacerbate them, which would probably mean that Malcolm Turnbull would not remain as leader. In any case, he would be unlikely to want to stay on, having already experienced opposition. A fair bet would be that an early by-election in Wentworth would follow, with Turnbull following the precedent of Malcolm Fraser (1983), Bob Hawke (1992) and Paul Keating (1996) in not sticking around.

Labor generally has managed leadership succession better than the Liberals after losing government. After 23 years in office, the Coalition's loss to Gough Whitlam in 1972 ushered in a period of instability and infighting that spilled over from the dumping of John Gorton in 1971. Billy Snedden, elected leader after Bill McMahon, found it difficult to contain the forces unleashed by defeat.

Again, in 1983, when Malcolm Fraser lost to Bob Hawke, a decade of warfare began in the Liberal Party as Andrew Peacock then John Howard, Andrew Peacock again and John Hewson all tried and failed to lead the party back into government .

With John Howard losing his seat as well as government in 2007, and the presumed successor, Peter Costello, leaving parliament, a vacuum was created, filled at first by an unsteady Brendan Nelson, then Malcolm Turnbull and finally by Tony Abbott.

The party's history suggests that turmoil is likely to follow a loss of office. So, what are the options?

Almost certainly, there would be a push for Tony Abbott to regain the leadership, but - given his dismal performance as prime minister - it is probable that such a push would be staunchly resisted. That would leave Scott Morrison, now Treasurer, as the presumed frontrunner to take over. Careful consideration would be given to his undoubted political skills, but that would be weighed against his lack of electoral appeal.

Almost certainly in contention in such a situation would be Julie Bishop, deputy leader since 2007, and the ultimate survivor, having served under, in turn, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and, once again, Malcolm Turnbull. She would be seen by many in the party as a safe pair of hands to lead it into the testing time after defeat rather than a longer-term proposition. But, again, would Julie Bishop want to stay on?

A bolder party might look for real generational change, and that would bring into contention the likes of Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt, already ministers - but the sullen mood likely to prevail in the immediate post-defeat period is hardly likely to be conducive to boldness. A lack of discernible talent in the ranks will certainly limit the options.

Outside the existing crop of the federal Liberals, there is one figure who stands out: NSW premier Mike Baird. A good communicator, a thoughtful and savvy media performer and enjoying high approval ratings, he would be an attractive asset were he to be persuaded to forsake Macquarie Street for Canberra.

But the sticking point here - even if Baird were tempted, which he might very well not be - would be the inevitable civil war his departure would ignite in the fractious NSW party. His logical successor, deputy leader and Treasurer, the very capable Gladys Berejiklian, is simply anathema to the conservative wing owing to her factional role in the moderates. It was an effective veto by the Right that stopped her running when Barry O'Farrell resigned in 2014, with Baird as a compromise. Although also a moderate, he was not seen as a factional warrior.

It is, of course, nothing more than idle speculation, but such schemes are not unknown. Some 15 years ago, the Liberal government in Western Australia under Richard Court was defeated, and Court sought to block his likely successor, Colin Barnett (now WA Premier) by hatching an audacious plan for federal MP Julie Bishop to resign her seat and take over the WA party with Barnett taking her seat and going to Canberra. Ultimately, it came to nothing.

It might not be just the Liberals with leadership issues to resolve after a defeat. Nationals' leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, is being strongly challenged in New England by former Independent MP, Tony Windsor. Should Joyce lose (and that could even happen without the government losing), the party has no natural successor with the deputy leader, Fiona Nash, in the Senate.

This story was first published in Fairfax Media.

Dr Norman Abjorensen, of the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy, is the author of The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits From Lyne to Abbott.